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A Dapper Strategist Battles Secession

Politics: Kam Kuwata isn't coasting, though opponents of a breakup are better funded.

September 03, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What happened to the 6-year-old boy who, when handed a "Democrats for Nixon" sticker back in 1960, promptly scratched off a few letters so that it read "rats for Nixon"?

He grew up to be one of California's most respected Democratic strategists.

Now, after years of directing winning campaigns for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, Kam Kuwata has signed on to try to help Hahn defeat secession bids in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Kuwata lugs around a bulging canvas tote bag. He speaks softly and often wears a bow tie. But under the dapper exterior is a man of intense discipline and drive. Even though his side has raised about $3 million, far more than the secessionists, and even though most polls show Los Angeles voters leaning against breaking up the city, Kuwata isn't coasting.

"The dumbest thing in the world is to take one's opponents for granted," he said, downing a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Sherman Oaks. "Whenever you put a microphone in front of [secession leader] Richard Katz, he says they have 3,000 block captains around the city. You have to take them seriously."

Kuwata knows how to bruise an opponent. Last year, his team aired a television ad depicting a crack pipe to suggest that Hahn's opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, was soft on drugs. Villaraigosa accused Hahn of trying "to create a climate of fear"--the same kind of criticism secessionists have leveled at the mayor during the current debate.

On any given day, Kuwata can be spotted shuffling through the corridors of City Hall or hovering at the fringes of some anti-secession event. Until recently, he waged the L.A. United campaign from a cell phone. (Now he keeps a bare-bones office on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.)

Ear to the Ground

On weekends, Kuwata said, he sometimes plunks himself down at a coffee shop in the Valley, slyly positioning his newspaper to display a secession-related story. Then he'll strike up casual conversations to see what people think of the breakaway bid.

"Kam holds his cards very close. He's always listening, absorbing information to use to his advantage," said John Shallman, a fellow Democratic consultant. "His clients get a lot of comfort from him. He's not prone to wild mood swings. He's steady."

By 6:30 or so each morning, Kuwata is usually on the treadmill--and on the phone to Bill Carrick, another A-list Democratic operative leading the anti-secession campaign. The two have worked in tandem since Feinstein's 1992 Senate race.

Carrick is the television ad expert, specializing in messages designed to resonate with voters. Kuwata is the guy on the ground, overseeing the day-to-day operations and picking up feedback about whether the messages are sticking.

In some ways, campaigning against the cityhood measures on the Nov. 5 ballot is like campaigning for an incumbent: You defend the status quo and point out the risks of changing course.

But the ground rules of this election, set by state law, have complicated the usual strategies. To win, secession must attract a majority of voters, not just within the areas seeking independence, but citywide.

That means Kuwata must fight his battle on three fronts--Hollywood, the Valley and the rest of the city.

The campaign is also muddled by the number of groups pushing for or against secession. Kuwata spends much of his time trying to coordinate various players--from council members and unions to citizens groups and business moguls--who oppose a municipal breakup.

"Kam is a very skilled adversary," said veteran GOP consultant Ken Khachigian.

"I have enormous respect for him. If I were pro-secession, I'd be worried."

Raised in Sierra Madre by a strong-willed single mother, Kuwata always gravitated toward politics, especially civil rights.

His mother's family was forced to live in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.

A Call to Politics

As a student at Pasadena High School, Kuwata worked to help desegregate the school system. He went on to USC, where he spent his free time volunteering for Democratic campaigns.

Kuwata's mother wanted him to go to law school, but instead he went to Washington in the mid-1970s, joining Sen. Alan Cranston's staff as a mail clerk.

Kuwata became Cranston's press spokesman and, in 1986, helped the liberal senator pull off a tough reelection campaign. He went on to manage Feinstein's three Senate campaigns and has also worked on Senate and gubernatorial races in Hawaii.

Kuwata is almost always on the winning team. One notable exception was in 1998, when he ran Jane Harman's campaign for governor. Harman's early lead shriveled after she was hit with a $5-million ad blitz by rival Al Checchi.

In last year's mayoral contest, Kuwata turned down an offer to work for Villaraigosa and instead joined Hahn's campaign.

Darry Sragow, who managed the Cranston campaign, called Kuwata "one of the great operatives in the state."

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